Industrial distribution professor helps food banks, school lunch programs

Photo of Dr. Malini NatarajarathinamA partnership between Texas A&M and two Central Texas food banks has proven profitable for the food banks — and also benefits Texas school children.

Dr. Malini Natarajarathinam, assistant professor in the Department of Engineering Technology and Industrial Distribution, helped the Capital Area Food Bank (CAFB) in Austin and the San Antonio Food Bank win a contract from the Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA) to deliver food to schools in the region.

TDA provides food from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to Texas schools for their school-lunch programs. Independent contractorss bid on warehousing and delivering the food to schools. These independent contractors are usually located in big cities, though, which sometimes meant that schools in remote areas were unable to receive fresh produce and had to rely on canned or frozen fruit and vegetables.

Natarajarathinam said that TDA officials, who were familiar with the supply-chain research and expertise at Texas A&M, suggested that Texas food banks should be able to bid on these contracts because food banks in Denver were already distributing USDA food.

“The food banks were already paying for gas to send out their empty trucks to pick up food donations and purchases to distribute,” she said, “and the food banks already have warehouses to store food. So why not have the trucks take the schools their allotment of USDA produce and then pick up food donations on their way back to the food bank? That way the food banks delivering the food to the schools could charge the schools less per case than the independent contractors who had previously delivered the food.”

And with food banks located all over Texas, even schools in the remotest corners of the state could receive fresh produce for their students.

“The food bank network is different from the TDA zones,” Natarajarathinam said. “The Austin and San Antonio food banks overlapped and were in the same TDA zone, so the two food banks in the area came together to bid on the contract.”

The project started in early 2010 with a happy coincidence, when CAFB’s then-CEO David Davenport (an Aggie) met ID Program Director Barry Lawrence at a networking event in Dallas. Natarajarathinam said the Texas A&M industrial distribution team then visited CAFB, and the collaboration began from there.

The first step was determining if distributing TDA food to Texas schools would be a good fit for the food bank. The experts in the Industrial Distribution program at Texas A&M analyzed supply and demand; distances the trucks would have to travel and possible driving routes; how many trucks and drivers were available and how many more would be needed; the amount of staff available and needed; and a cost-revenue analysis with projected return on investment.

“On paper, this looked to be profitable for the food banks,” Natarajarathinam said, “but it was a major shift for them because now they might be able to generate money to buy and distribute even more food.”

The second part of the collaboration was responding to TDA’s Request for Proposals. The two food banks submitted a bid, and won.

Charlie Ward, director of the Capital Area Food Banks, “This fit into our mission to end hunger in Central Texas. It benefits the schools and also helps us build better relationships with the public.”

Ward said that about 65 percent of kids enrolled in schools in the region are on a reduced-cost lunch program — 100 percent of students in some schools

“We are spreading the word through the schools on how families can get help from our food bank,” Ward said.

And the schools are happy, too, he said. The food bank has received emails from school administrators saying how glad they were that the food bank was working with them.

“It’s all USDA food, so it’s no different from what they’ve always received, “Ward said. “We have had questions about why food bank trucks were showing up at the schools, but parents understand that we’re providing a delivery service only.

“It’s a win-win all around.”

This year, the food bank has distributed 138,000 cases of food to schools, or about five million pounds. Ward says this is lower than anticipated, but it’s just the first year.

“We’re in this for the long haul,” Ward said, “and the experts at Texas A&M gave us the tools and the confidence we needed to make this program a success.”